For years, the American Heart Association has recommended that men and women engage in regular aerobic exercise. For good reason, exercise that boosts your heart rate for an extended time triggers adaptations that make your heart a more efficient pump. Plus, aerobic exercise relaxes the inner walls of your arteries and makes the arteries more flexible. This helps lower blood pressure both acutely and longer term. Finally, aerobic exercise has favorable effects on blood lipids and helps control stress, another contributor to heart disease and stroke.
In contrast, we think of strength training as a tool for muscle size and strength and for building stronger bones. Not to mention, strength training keeps more functional as you age. However, the line of demarcation between strength training and cardio, in terms of heart and blood vessel health, is narrowing. According to a new study, weight training is healthy for your heart and blood vessels too.
Aerobic vs. Resistance Exercise and Blood Vessels Health
In a study carried out at UBC Okanagan, researchers looked at the effects of aerobic exercise and resistance interval training on blood vessel function. Participants completed one of these two forms of exercise for 20 minutes. One group did an interval, aerobic-style workout by cycling on an exercise bike. The participants alternated high-intensity cycling intervals with 1-minute rest and recovery intervals. The resistance training group did high-intensity resistance training in a similar interval fashion. Both groups did a 7-minute warm-up before their respective workouts.
The participants in this study fell into three categories: untrained exercisers, regular exercisers, and a group with type 2 diabetes. Surprisingly, all three groups showed improvements in blood vessel function after interval resistance training, with the type 2 diabetics enjoying the greatest improvement. That’s important since the leading cause of death in type 2 diabetics is heart disease.
This might seem surprising since we typically don’t think of resistance training as being heart healthy, at least not in the way aerobic exercise is. Maybe it’s time to reframe how we look at resistance training. It’s not just for building bigger, stronger muscles!
This isn’t the only study showing resistance training is good for blood vessels. A study carried out in people with borderline high blood pressure showed training against resistance improved arterial blood flow and modestly lowered resting blood pressure. Experts now believe that both aerobic and resistance training may be beneficial for blood vessel function and heart health.
Can Weight Training Raise Your Blood Pressure?
You may have heard that resistance training increases blood pressure rather than lowering it. In fact, at one time doctors told patients with high blood pressure not to weight train for fear that lifting heavy weights might cause a dangerous spike in blood pressure. It’s true that when you lift a heavy weight, blood pressure rises significantly but it also drops quickly. Plus, after recovery from a strength-training workout, you may see a more sustained lowering of blood pressure. The rise in blood pressure when you lift a heavy weight is significant but brief in duration. Afterward, your blood pressure may be lower than when you started. Still, due to the brief jump in blood pressure, talk to your doctor before lifting heavy weights, especially if you have hypertension or another health issue. If your blood pressure is under good control, they’ll likely encourage you to resistance train.
What about less intense forms of weight training? If you weight train using a circuit-style structure, little or no rest between exercises, you also raise your resting heart rate and get modest cardiovascular and blood vessel benefits. In addition, weight training improves insulin sensitivity. As you probably know, insulin resistance is a strong risk factor for future heart disease. Improving your insulin sensitivity is good for your heart and blood vessels as well as your waistline.
Both Beneficial but In Different Ways
Finally, another study showed resistance training and aerobic exercise are both good for your heart but each has unique benefits. During resistance exercise, your arteries stiffen a bit but you also increase blood flow to your arms and legs. This increase in blood flow and the drop in blood pressure after a resistance workout makes it a heart and blood vessel friendly activity. In contrast, aerobic exercises decrease the stiffness of arteries by opening them up but without the same boost in blood flow that resistance exercise offers. Researchers believe the transient arterial stiffness brought about by lifting a heavy weight causes a compensatory increase in blood flow to the muscles in your extremities.
The Bottom Line
It’s unlikely that the recommendations to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise weekly by the American Heart Association will change anytime soon. Yet, there’s growing evidence that strength training is good for your heart and blood vessels. From the evidence, it looks like the ideal fitness routine should include both forms of training.
Strength training alone won’t greatly improve exercise endurance while aerobic exercise won’t make you stronger or help preserve muscle mass as you age. The adaptations to each form of exercise are different, yet both help your blood vessels function better while reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Strength training is particularly beneficial if you have diabetes or metabolic syndrome since building more muscle tissue improves how your body handles glucose. Fortunately, you don’t have to choose one form of exercise. Your fitness routine can and should include both! Plus, make sure you’re including movement throughout the day, even if you do a structured workout. Being sedentary is an independent risk factor for heart disease. Find more reasons to move and you’ll be rewarded with better health.
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